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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University. He previously taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago, where he served[…]

The key is not to focus disproportionate attention on Israel, but to ask why Israel gets as much aid as it does, says Walt.

Question: Does Israel receive a disproportionate amount of attention?

Stephen Walt: Well any country that the United States is aligned with, it seems to me one should be able to examine that relationship and ask is it . . . is it going in the right way. But the key there is not that we wanna focus disproportionate attention on Israel and single it out in any particular way. It’s rather that American policy has already singled out Israel in some fundamental ways. It’s the largest recipient of American economic and military aid. It’s about three to four billion dollars a year, which works out to about $500 for each Israeli citizen from the American taxpayer. And this is a country that’s not a poor country any longer. It has the 29th per capita income in the world, which is a wonderful thing. It’s a remarkable testimony to the industry and achievement of Israel’s own citizens. But the fact is we have a special relationship with it. It’s not that we’re singling it out for attention. It’s already been singled out. And our question in writing the book was trying to explain why that was the case, and ask whether that was in the American interest at this point.

 Question: Does Israel face an existential threat?

Stephen Walt: Not really, no.  It’s the strongest military power in the region.  It has a strong ally in our case.  It’s won every war it’s fought.  You could argue about the most recent war with Lebanon, but that was not an existential war.  It has peace treaties with Egypt and with Jordan.  I believe it could have a peace treaty with Syria; and I believe the Arab countries actually would like to make peace with Israel now if the solution could be found to the Palestinian problem.  And finally the question is Iran and Iran’s nuclear ambition.  And I think that’s a problem for the Israelis, no question about it, as it is for us.  And we all ought to be thinking of ways that we could try and discourage Iran from developing a full nuclear capability.  But even if Iran got a few nuclear weapons, I don’t believe that it’s a threat to Israel’s existence.  I don’t think Iran could use those weapons without causing its own destruction.  Remember that Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons of its own, and I don’t think believe would be at all bashful about threatening to use those if it were ever attacked; much the same way that the United States threatened to use its weapons during the Cold War if it was ever attacked.  I don’t want to paint a picture that, you know, everything is just completely rosy or anything like that.  All countries face security problems, and Israel faces more serious security problems than most.  But Israel’s existence – and this is good news – is not in doubt at this point.  And I think that’s a good thing, and I don’t think any of the external threats it now faces pose a threat to Israel’s existence either now or in the long term.

Question:What should Israel do in the face of Iranian threats?

Stephen Walt: Well a couple of things.  One is to understand exactly what Ahmadinejad said.  He’s frequently misquoted as having said that Israel should be wiped off the map.  What he was really saying was that Israel should “vanish from the page of time.”  Now that still sounds pretty awful, and I think the remarks are reprehensible.  But what he was suggesting – and it’s an allusion to an old quotation by Khomeini – that the Jewish state in Palestine could be a temporary political condition.  And it could eventually evolve into some kind of democracy so the Palestinians would have control.  So he’s opposing the Zionist regime there, but he’s not calling for the physical destruction of Israel or the massacre of all of its inhabitants or things like that.  He’s suggesting it could be like the Soviet Union.  It goes out of business at some point down the road, but not because it’s been physically destroyed.  I think if I were an Israeli, and indeed as an American I find those remarks deeply objectionable because I think the existence of a Jewish state is a good thing.  But how you deal with that is not necessarily by, say, advocating preventive war or exaggerating a particular danger it calls for.  It seems to me what we wanna do is isolate people like Ahmadinejad; do our best to strengthen more moderate forces in Iran; look for a deal with the Iranians that prevent them or discourage them from going ahead and getting nuclear weapons; and finally doing everything we can to get a final settlement between Israel and the Palestinians which would take away the main political cause that extremists like Ahmadinejad like to invoke.  I think once you get that one settled, the extremists start looking like obstructionists and criminals and we don’t have  problem anymore.  And we don’t have anywhere near the problem that we’re facing today.

Question: Can Zionism survive?

Stephen Walt: I don’t see any reason why a Jewish state can’t exist in perpetuity in Palestine where it is now.  I mean I can imagine ways in which the Zionist project over many decades and many centuries might eventually erode.  But I also see lots of reasons why it might continue.  That’s really beyond the scope of what we were working on as well and will, if anything, reflect political and social developments inside Israel that are very hard to foresee.

Recorded on: 10/8/07